Does the color blue taste like dirty laundry? Like SweetTarts? Like beef jerky? Like mud?
Synesthesia is a brain condition that creates just this sort of sensory crossover. Some synthesthetes “smell” colors or “taste” words. For these people, sounds can be cold or damp or spiked, and scents may have distinct textures.
It's a condition that runs in families, and might affect as many as one in every two dozen people. The crossover is not universal (not everyone tastes green as mint, but there is some overlap from person to person...) Oh -- and the condition sometimes visits the brain with help from traumatic brain injury, seizure disorder, psychedelic drugs.
Vladimir Nabokov, famously, had one of the most common forms of this condition called grapheme-synthesthesia or “color reading.” Both he and his wife Vera associated colors with various letters. In his memoir, Speak Memory, he writes that the “V” of his own name is “quartz pink” and the number 5 is red. Regardless the typographical convention, the Arabic numeral 5 was red to him.
I was born poor to a story-telling family. I was born to an extravagant wealth of untruths. (Q.E.D.)
I was born in the ordinary way to normal-enough fam-- that can’t be it.
I was not born at all, but hatched. I was not hatched but hacked out of a migraine headache. Or hack-sawed from a barred window. Not hack-sawed -- haver-sacked. Hacky-sacked. Halleluiah.
Belay all that. I was born all right. I’ll show you born. There’s evidence in white orthopedic booties, and ill-formed rubber bottle tips, plus that whole hair-shirt with kindergarten and the nuns. I’ve seen the photos: Pete the party pony led by a young man who resembles my father; the series of gradational pastel Easter outfits, one white glove of which cameos on another page with someone who could be me at age seven or five, if I wore a red bathing suit and held a jessed sparrow-hawk on a cotton-gloved hand.
But pictures only suggest a thousand stories. It’s not their job to nail down the tone, firm up the details, calculate the exact twirl to put on the facts. And in my family, it was all playing to the crowd and fighting for the stage, and telling the best story.
Well anyway, hardships, scholarships, sailing ships. I ended up in Manhattan, walking to save subway fare. And it was snowing uphill both ways. But there was Susan Sontag and her son David Rieff striding off to lunch and Scott Turow presuming Innocent at Farrar Straus Giroux. And that Tom Wolfe, wraithing around in a white suit trying to finish Bonfire, looking all “what can ail thee knight at arms, alone and paley loitering”.
Time flapped on. Like it does. What with the weird mono, and the no money, and the student loans and all, the whole New York City thing didn’t work out as I had hoped.
So it came to pass that I packed my worldly goods into a rusted white Ford Fiesta and drove to St. Pete Beach, Florida to connect with my reconstructed, unconnected, soi-dis family. Most notably, to take my turn looking after my grandmother Mimi as she shuffled off this mortal coil.
The last of the family money and an excellent shopper, Mimi had Parkinson’s and a bright, colorless head of hair. She tended to tip, tilt, list, lilt, like one of those Weebles who wobble but won't fall down.
She lunched at the yacht club with three college chums: sixty-plus years of chat, bridge, powdered cheeks, and someone else driving. She liked to file her fingernails and re-apply perfume while riding shotgun in the car. Downshifting my Fiesta on the corner, avoiding that big gold Caddy with its turn-indicator flashing pointlessly for an entire presidential era and -- tsst! I got it. A cloud of condensed scent dark as espresso, a spritz of pre-Socratic Shalimar, right in the eye. Seems like a piss-poor silly way to go, I was thinking while making the dramatic steering correction across traffic and elbowing Mimi back upright, and then, as we emerged unscathed: but it might make an okay story.
Of course, not as funny as the story of cousin K leaving that girl, making a hobo sack of his entire wardrobe from a flowery sheet and then santa-clausing it over his shoulder, stopping at the car dealership for his paycheck on his way out of town, wearing just long-johns and boots under his coat, pointing explanation for his boss at the mattress tied inadequately to the roof of the car.
Not nearly as fun as the story of Dad and the uncles crashing my sister’s Halloween party, rattling chains down the chimney, appearing up-lit and remarkably ghoulish at the windows, resulting in an incident involving one of the grade-school party-goers, piddle, and a rather nice Turkish rug.
Not in the same realm of the story as the night of the bat invasion, or the time Cousin D won the coin-toss to light the black-powder-laden model schooner. It’s not sweet, like the one about Nana being kidnapped and rescued as a toddler in Albany, or the time Aunt P shouted from the porch, “All right, you little bastards, it’s lunchtime,” because her father suggested that the word “guys” was vulgar.
Maybe not even my own story, come right to it. But it might do for now. There, I’m connected.
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